Gender publication gap ‘largely explained’ by childcare burden

Data from study pinpoints first years after childbirth as biggest hit to women’s research productivity

February 24, 2021
Mother and baby group
Source: iStock

The “vast majority” of the gap in publication rates between men and women at research-intensive universities can be explained by the “productivity penalty” paid by mothers, especially in the first few years after childbirth, a new study suggests.

Using a survey of about 3,000 academics at 450 computer science, history, and business departments in the US and Canada – and linking this to data on their publications – researchers compared productivity rates over time between parents and those without children.

They found that although women without children still produced fewer papers on average than male non-parents – suggesting other potential gender biases at work – the gap was larger when comparing mothers and fathers.

The total productivity of women with children was between 73.6 per cent and 82.9 per cent of fathers’ publication output over the same early career period analysed in the study, as opposed to women without children publishing between 87.6 per cent and 95.6 per cent of male non-parents’ output.

After comparing the publication output of men and women of similar age, career point and type of institution, the researchers – mainly from the University of Colorado Boulder – also found “the annual productivity of mothers decreases immediately after childbirth, compared to nonmothers or men”.

Specifically, the data suggested “that the event of parenthood sharply decreases short-term productivity for mothers” by up to 48 per cent “but generally not for fathers with the exception of the field of history”.

It adds that the effect may also be underestimated by the study “because parenthood may drive individuals to leave academia before being observed by our sample – a selection effect that may be stronger for those individuals who experience larger parenthood productivity losses”.

“Our results are consistent with a simple causal relationship between time available for research and overall productivity, in which parenthood specifically reduces the latter for women much more so than for men,” the paper, published in Science Advances, adds.

“Hence, policies aimed at providing more workplace flexibility for parents, such as accessible lactation rooms and affordable childcare, are likely to lessen the impact of parenthood on research time.”

The research does say that the size of the “parenthood penalty” appears to be shrinking over time.

For example, since 2000, mothers in computer science have produced on average 5.4 fewer papers than fathers – equivalent to about one year’s work in the discipline – a gap that is about 18 papers, or five years’ work, for the whole sample.

“This trend may reflect broader changes in gender roles, possibly driven by the increasing proportions of women, or the growing prevalence of paid gender-neutral parental leave policies,” the paper says. It adds that results from the survey also indicated “broad support for such policies among academics and points to the role these policies play in the recruitment and retention of women”.

However, it adds that the continuing productivity gap between mothers and fathers was also “consistent with the idea that gender norms around parenting and who allocates more time to childcare ultimately drive a differential and larger impact on women’s careers”.

Such an impact was also bound to emerge when an “event occurs that is filtered through these norms” such as the Covid-19 pandemic, where various studies have already suggested that women’s research productivity has been hit harder by the extra childcare demands wrought by the crisis.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Is there a difference between countries? Maternity and paternity rights are very different in different places. What happens if you compare, say, US and Sweden?

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